A (Semi-Famous) Fame Scholar Takes In the Knicks' Courtside Celebs

13 May 2024

At the last Knicks game of the regular season, Cass Sunstein, the well-known legal scholar, found himself in the nosebleed seats of Madison Square Garden, peering at the celebrities sitting courtside. Seth Meyers beamed for the jumbotron, his son jabbing a big foam finger. In the front row, Patrick Wilson leaned forward intently, eyes slit, black T-shirt snug. Tracy Morgan was there, too, as was Edie Falco. Nearby, a woman in an orange peacoat and silver aviators threw up jazz hands for the cameras. “That’s my friend—Connie Britton!” Sunstein said, then glanced around, bashfully.

Sunstein, who teaches law, public policy, and behavioral economics at Harvard, had a postgame train to catch and was dressed Acela casual, in a blue suit and Rockports. He sat clutching his suitcase awkwardly on his lap, wheels up. He looked down at Britton: “To say I’m her friend—I’m a little embarrassed about that.”

His new book, “How to Become Famous,” analyzes the forces that make for extraordinary success—reputational cascades, network effects, power-law distributions. Luck is essential. Early champions help. Posthumous attention works wonders. “You need to be minimally talented,” he allowed, but said that talent wasn’t enough. “The number of people who have the capacity to be spectacularly successful or famous—and who are amazing—is very high. And they just didn’t get a chance.” The book reads like a gentle intervention for the sort of reader who would buy it, and a repudiation of the company it is bound to keep at airport bookstores—the self-actualization manuals that identify some quality possessed by the Connies, Seths, Tracys, Edies, and Patricks of the world, in order to prescribe a regimen for success.

Sunstein rolled his eyes. “The idea that there’s a set of people who could have been as successful as Seth Meyers and, of them, Seth Meyers is the best—my guess is Seth Meyers would be the first to say no,” he said.

In the taxonomy of the Knicks’ V.I.P. section, which nurtures a capacious sense of celebrity (regulars include Jerry Seinfeld, Ben Stiller, Spike Lee, Chris Rock, and Chloë Sevigny), people like Sunstein hover in the middle—the talismanic intellectuals that hedge-funders and media executives bring around as plus-ones. He is a brand-name thinker. At the University of Chicago, where he taught for twenty-seven years, he became known for his vast publishing output. He co-authored “Nudge,” the first of several big-ideas best-sellers from him, and shared a faculty lounge with Barack Obama. After marrying his second wife, Samantha Power, he began a stint at the White House.

“I’ve always just wanted to do something, you know, useful and not of low quality,” he said, spinning a suitcase wheel. In 2009, he withstood a brutal confirmation process before the Senate, for the prize of running the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. (Power later became the Ambassador to the U.N.) After he moved to D.C., another academic called with some wisdom. “In academic life,” Sunstein recalled him saying, “someone comes in my room and asks me to explain an economic problem—a hard one—and I do. And then they say, ‘Thank you,’ and leave my office. In government, someone asks me to explain a hard economic problem, I do, and they look at me and say, ‘You’re an asshole.’ ” But Sunstein thrilled to bureaucracy, and endured its discontents. “If I was involved in something that no one attributed to me, that was great,” he said.

As Frank Sinatra’s version of “New York, New York” played, Sunstein mused on being a Swiftie. “The success of Taylor Swift is partly an informational cascade”—people listening to things that they know other people are listening to—“and partly a reputational cascade, where people say they love Taylor Swift, because they kind of have to.”

He recalled his own plight as a fan. Once, he was invited to a party where John McEnroe, a personal idol, was a guest. “I said, ‘So great to meet you. I play a little sport called squash.’ ” His response, Sunstein said, was “ ‘We used to look down on squash players.’ What a jerk.” Another time, at a hotel in Chicago, he approached Muhammad Ali, and found himself describing the circumstances in which, as a nine-year-old, he’d slept through Ali’s 1964 championship match. “Of all the stories he heard from fans, this must have been the most boring,” Sunstein said.

On the jumbotron, more specimens from the V.I.P. section appeared. There was the actor Anya Taylor-Joy, who had been discovered by an A-list agent while she was walking her dog past Harrods (luck); Luis Guzmán, a favorite of the directors Paul Thomas Anderson and Steven Soderbergh (early champions); the rapper Lola Brooke, who had gone viral on TikTok (informational cascade). “I don’t know any of them,” Sunstein said. He considered how famous people tolerate all the attention. “You have to have a capacity to be either bemused by what comes or a capacity to find a hidey-hole,” he said. “I’m a big fan of the hidey-hole.” ♦

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